The Last Samurai

Starring Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly…

The Last Samurai

Starring Tom Cruise, Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly

Directed by Edward Zwick

Tom Cruise’s scruffy beard in “The Last Samurai” is magnificent. It is a marvel of modern facial hair, engineered with painstaking precision to look fit for a ruler of nations or a king of beasts, an action hero or a movie mogul. It is reborn with every new facial expression; it takes on new significance from every new angle, in every new light. I give it four stars.

However, next to the actor’s majestic beard, the film is but a nasty blond ‘stache.

Not even director Edward Zwick, who is no stranger to period war films (“Glory”), can lend it the kind of importance it desperately wants.

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The film is a romanticized depiction of the last stand of the samurai – so lovable with their ever-willingness to jam daggers in their own guts at the suggestion that they’ve misplaced their honor – against the forces of Western-turning 1870s Japan.

Cruise is Nathan Algren, American war hero and alcoholic, a man who can’t reconcile the fact that he’s survived more battles than he should have. He is recruited to train Japanese troops to use guns in combat so they can obliterate the last of the sword-faithful samurai.

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During the troops’ first attempt, Algren is taken prisoner by the samurai and forced to – gasp – hang out with them for several months.

Over the course of the film’s punishing two-and-a-half-plus hour running time, Algren learns several lessons: spirituality exists; samurai are cooler than regular Japanese people, who are apparently evil; you shouldn’t kill people just because you’re paid to; and honor is not dead – at least not yet.

In addition to its gag-inducing themes, the film continually – and unnervingly – threatens a romance between Algren and Taka, the wife of a samurai who Algren killed.

Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly, fine actors reduced to mechanisms, provide the supporting facial hair; Spall has bushy sideburns, and Connolly a tidy Vandyke.

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The battle sequences bring the film’s only endurable moments. They are less graceful – this is a good thing – than those of most Hollywood fare. Ask someone to wake you up during them.

Otherwise, the film is an unexciting and unnecessary retread of “Dances with Wolves.” There’s a ton of major studio cash on screen and not a bit of resonance.

Warner Bros. thinks this film is an Oscar contender. Sorry guys – not unless they add a Best Facial Hair category.

“The Last Samurai” opens in theaters Friday.

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